Ex-Blue Jays: Whatever happened to? . . . Chuck Hartenstein

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He’s the answer to one of the more challenging Canadian baseball trivia questions.

Who is the only person to be in a big league uniform for the first game at Exhibition Stadium and the first game at the SkyDome?

The answer is Chuck Hartenstein, who was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen for their snowy first game at the Ex on April 7, 1977 and he was later the pitching coach of the Milwaukee Brewers when they battled the Blue Jays in the Dome opener on June 5, 1989.

Hartenstein, now 73 and living in Austin, Texas, remembers both games fondly. And although the snow must have been a shock to a reliever who had pitched the previous two seasons in Hawaii, Hartenstein would’ve gladly taken the ball if he had been called upon in that blustery Blue Jays opener.

“What astounded me was the Zamboni,” recalled Hartenstein of the first game in Blue Jays history, in a recent phone interview. “We had an afternoon game and the whole field was white when we came out, so we couldn’t take batting practice. Before the game, the Zamboni would clear the field. It started at third base and it went to first base to clean up all that snow. Well, by the time it got to first base, the field was white again at third base. It was just absolutely incredible.”

Hartenstein didn’t pitch in the Blue Jays’ 9-5 win over the Chicago White Sox that historic day, but he did manage to find ways to keep himself warm.

“Every inning I went into the clubhouse to get a cup of coffee,” he said.

The 5-foot-11 right-hander was just glad to be back in the big leagues. After tenures with the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox from 1965 to 1970, Hartenstein had pitched in the minors for six seasons, the last two with the Pacific Coast League champion Hawaii Islanders, managed by new Blue Jays skipper Roy Hartsfield.

“Roy called me on November 4, 1976 and he said, ‘Charlie, we just bought your contract from Hawaii. You’re going to be a Toronto Blue Jay.’ Well, you want to talk about one of the happiest days of my life. That was one of them,” shared Hartenstein.

At the time, players needed four years of big league service to qualify for a major league pension and Hartenstein was a few days short.

“Roy said to me, ‘You’re going to get those days. You earned it,’” remembered Hartenstein. “Well, that was one of his favorite sayings and it really motivated people. He said, ‘You earned it.’ I carried that over in all my time coaching. I learned a lot from that man. He was like a second father to me.”

When the 34-year-old Hartenstein arrived in Dunedin, Fla., for spring training in 1977, he saw several familiar faces, including two players – John Scott and Jerry Johnson – who had suited up alongside him in Hawaii. In Florida, he shared living quarters with Johnson, Bob Bailor and Mike Willis.

“I introduced them to country and western music,” cracked Hartenstein. “It’s because of me that they know Luckenbach, Texas by Waylon Jennings.”

After heading north with the team, Hartenstein made his first big league appearance with the Blue Jays on April 12. The right-handed sidearmer hurled scoreless eighth and ninth innings against the Detroit Tigers in a 6-1 loss at Exhibition Stadium.

“Alan Ashby was the catcher that day and it just happened to be that Detroit had all right-handed hitters coming up and that’s why Roy put me in there,” said Hartenstein. “And I struck out the first three hitters. It would’ve have been on nine pitches, but on the 0-2 pitch to Aurelio Rodriguez, he laid off a pitch that I thought could’ve have been called a third strike.”

Hartenstein provided a veteran presence in the Blue Jays bullpen in the early going of the 1977 season. Unfortunately, his big league comeback was derailed by Rod Carew in the eighth inning of a Blue Jays’ 13-3 loss at Exhibition Stadium on May 14.

“I think I threw him a sinker inside and down and he used that inside out swing and the wind happened to be blowing from right field to left field and with that inside out swing that ball was moving as it was coming towards me,” recalled Hartenstein. “It also was right in that area between your waist and your legs that you don’t know whether to flip your glove up or flip your glove down and I got caught in between and that sucker hit my thumb. And I looked down and that last digit was looking at me. The good news was that Roy Howell was playing third base and he picked the ball up and threw Carew out.”

Hartenstein was sidelined for a month and a half, but during that time, the Blue Jays used him as an advance scout.

“I knew why Roy brought me to Toronto,” said Hartenstein. “He brought me there to be a pitching coach down the road for him.”

Hartenstein returned to the mound for the Blue Jays on Canada Day, but his thumb still wouldn’t bend, so he had to alter his pitching repertoire. In all, he made 13 appearances for the Jays in 1977.

Pitching in the big leagues in any capacity was a dream come true for Hartenstein, who was raised in a 1,000-square foot home in Seguin, Texas that backed on to a creek. His father, Charles Oscar Hartenstein Sr., worked for a beer distribution company, while his mother, Lois Myrtle Springs Hartenstein, was a stay-at-home mom until his brother Larry, who was six years younger than him, reached high school and then she became a teacher.

“I grew up in a very poor family and we had a gravel driveway probably about 100-feet long,” he said. “We had all kinds of stones back there. We didn’t have a garage, but we had an area with a cover over the top and what I would do is, I would go out there every day and make my own home plate and measure off the distance. And even when it was raining, I could still stand under that covering and throw rocks all day. And then what I’d do is gather up all the rocks and bring them back.”

He would also hone his batting skills there.

“Whenever my mom got a new broom, I got the old broom stick. I was a switch hitter and I went out and I hit those rocks,” he recalled. “There was a field behind our house so I could hit rocks and not destroy anything or hurt anybody . . . I could wear out a mop or a broom in about a week.”

Hartenstein blossomed into a star moundsman as a teenager. In 1960, he pitched a no-hitter in the final game to lead Seguin High School to a state championship. His dominance on the mound helped earn him a baseball scholarship from the University of Texas.

“I made a deal with Bibb Falk the coach there, who played with the White Sox for many years,” said Hartenstein. “Bibb invited me and my mom up to dinner and he said, ‘Hey, you comin’ here or not?’ And I said, ‘Well, am I getting a scholarship?’ He said, ‘Yes, you’re going to get a full four-year scholarship.’ And I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ He said, ‘I want you to make me a promise first. I want you to promise that you won’t sign [with a big league team] until after your eligibility is done.’ And I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ He said, ‘You don’t have to sign anything with me. Just shake my hand.’ And that’s the way I’ve run my whole life. A handshake is worth more than any contract a lawyer can draw up.’”

And Hartenstein stuck to that handshake agreement even when the Philadelphia Phillies approached him after his junior year and offered him a significant bonus to sign. He was eventually signed by Chicago Cubs scout Billy Capps after his senior year.

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Hartenstein was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1964.

Hartenstein spent his first professional season with the Cubs’ Class-A affiliate in St. Cloud, Minn., before enjoying a breakout campaign with the Double-A Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs in 1965. That season, he topped the Texas League with a 2.18 ERA and logged 223 innings and he was rewarded with his first promotion to the big leagues.

“I got called up and I met the Cubs at Dodger Stadium and that was September 9, 1965,” recalled Hartenstein. “And that’s the day that Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game against us. I had never seen stuff like that in my life and I’m going, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”

Hartenstein made his big league debut as a pinch runner on September 11, 1965, but he wouldn’t throw his first major league pitch until the following year. In 1967, he recorded 11 saves and posted a 3.08 ERA in 44 games and evolved into one of the Cubs’ most reliable bullpen arms. On rare occasions, he’d come into relieve Canadian baseball legend Fergie Jenkins.

“The bullpen just thought they had a day off when Fergie was pitching,” said Hartenstein. “That man had amazing control and a great slider. Hitters couldn’t see that slider with the way he threw it. He just had outstanding command of his pitches. He was one of the best pitchers I ever played with.”

Hartenstein returned to pitch 28 games for the Cubs in 1968 before he was dealt to the Pirates the ensuing January. With the Bucs in 1969, he appeared in a career-high 56 contests, notched 10 saves and enjoyed his most success against the Montreal Expos. In six games against the Expos, Hartenstein recorded two wins and four saves.

He recalls being at Jarry Park early in the 1969 season when there was still ice on the field.

“I was backing up the pitcher at batting practice at Jarry Park and putting balls in the bucket and there was a circle of maybe 15 to 20 feet of ice around me and I was on an ice island,” he recalled. “I felt like I was on a surf board. You could put the weight on one foot and then shift it and then that whole 15-foot area would just shimmy.”

After splitting the 1970 campaign between the Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox, Hartenstein spent the next six seasons in Triple-A in the Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres organizations, before he resurfaced in the big leagues with the Blue Jays.

Following the 1977 season, Hartenstein served as a coach for the Blue Jays’ instructional league team. He worked in that capacity for two years before the Cleveland Indians hired him to be their big league pitching coach.

Hartenstein worked for the Indians in 1979 and then served as a minor league pitching coach in the Padres, Pirates and White Sox organizations. In 1987, he returned to the big leagues when Milwaukee Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn hired him to be his pitching coach, a role he fulfilled for three seasons.

Hartenstein served as the pitching coach with the Milwaukee Brewers from 1987 to 1989.

Hartenstein served as the pitching coach with the Milwaukee Brewers from 1987 to 1989.

Following his tenure with the Brewers, he became an advanced scout for the California Angels and then enjoyed part-time scouting stints with the Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s before retiring to his home in Austin, Texas, in 1995. These days, Hartenstein is happy to spend time with his wife Joyce (The couple will celebrate their 54th anniversary on November 26.), his two sons, Chris and Greg, and their families, which include five granddaughters.

“Physically I’m deteriorating, but my mind is still as dull as ever,” he joked. “I’m just having a ball sitting here and drinking Budweiser and being around my family.”

He has not returned to Toronto in recent years, but it’s clear that the city and, in particular, Hartsfield, his Blue Jays manager, who passed away on January 15, 2011, will always have a special place in his heart. In fact, Hartenstein used to call Hartsfield and his wife, Alice, on Christmas Eve every year.

“Roy and his wife, Alice, were two of my favourite people,” said Hartenstein. “Those were two of the nicest people that I’ve ever run across in my life. I’ll always be thankful to Roy for taking me with him to Toronto to get my time in [for the major league pension plan].”

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14 thoughts on “Ex-Blue Jays: Whatever happened to? . . . Chuck Hartenstein

  1. Brilliant Kevin…I can’t say that you brought back old memories for me; back in the days when the time the Jays set up shop I was a die-hard Expos fan…the affairs of the Jays touched me not at all…Unlike today, of course…GO JAYS GO

  2. Len Corben - Author of The Pitching Professor: The Life and Times of Ernie Kershaw, One of Professional Baseball's Oldest-Living Former Players

    I don’t remember Chuck Hartenstein although I see in his baseball-reference stats that he played for Tacoma in the PCL in 1966 and 1968 so I probably would have seen him play in Vancouver against the Mounties. Nevertheless I loved the story you did Kevin. It really gave a homey kind of feel for his baseball life in the good old days.

  3. Kevin,great article on Harty, he was a class act,and a very funny guy..along with Doug Rader in 1982…in all my years of playing,its still one of my fondest memories of playing ball…i wish i could send a hello out to him, if you know of any contact info for Chuck i wish you could please send it to me..take care ,Rick Lancellotti..1981-82 Hawaii Islander…Ricklancellotti@icloud.com

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